Brass Tacks

Until the Dirty Dozen came along, New Orleans brass band music was almost as dead as the corpses it has escorted into eternity for more than a century. The once rollicking second-line parades were by the 1970s doddering on legs weary of the same old "Muskrat Ramble." The white handkerchiefs were not being waved with the same gleeful abandon, the multicolored umbrellas were not being speared into the skies with the same joyful conviction. The spirit with which African-American New Orleanians had uniquely (in America, at least) sent off their lost souls had ebbed almost past the point of rescue.

Roger Lewis's Dirty Dozen Brass Band had dutifully mastered the tired New Orleans canon over countless hours of practice only to discover that nobody -- save tourists and the orneriest sticks-in-the-mud -- was much enticed by their material. Instead of simply breaking up, the Dirty Dozen dared to break the mold. It took to woodshedding works by Monk, Ellington and James Brown. At first, these blasphemous tune-ups took place only in private, but then came a fateful funeral parade on Bayou St. John in 1977.

That parade was shaping up like any other. The newly formed Dirty Dozen was priming for the procession, running through the same old changes on the same old classics that time had, in this case, dishonored. A knot of yawning onlookers was listlessly standing by. As the last trumpet note faded unconvincingly into oblivion, there came a lightning flash in American music history, as vital in New Orleans musical history as Bob Dylan's heretical amplification at the Newport Folk Festival was in its world. Lewis called out "Night Train" to the band.

As Kirk Joseph's sousaphone rumbled the tune's unmistakable bass line, feet started stepping high in the newly piqued crowd. When the bass and snare kicked in, butts started to wiggle. When the rest of the brass joined the fray, hands were thrown into the air. More onlookers thronged to the spot, by then a bedlam of colorful motion. As the "Night Train" chugged into the station, Lewis shouted out "Bongo Beat" to the band, and with this one-two punch the Dirty Dozen killed and resurrected brass band music in the Big Easy. As they might have said there in days long gone, "La musique est morte. Vive la musique."

Lewis, the brass band young turk-turned-elder statesman, laughs when he remembers how the Dirty Dozen funked things up. "We were the first to step up the tempo," he remembers. "It wasn't nothing intentional. But you take a couple tokes, and there ain't no telling how fast or what you might play." Clearly this was just the sort of transfusion the bled-white parades needed, as Lewis relates: "We had those parades jumpin'. We had 'em just hoppin' along like bunnies."

The breakthrough came in a private rehearsal when Lewis urged Joseph to crank the sousaphone up to 11 and fatten up the bottom. In effect, Joseph had "electrified" the bass of brass bands, his loud, rubberized sousaphone freeing the rest of the Dirty Dozen to tackle whatsoever caught their fancy. Previous tuba and sousaphone men had been captive to string bass patterns and were further fettered by Big Easy chauvinism. "We used to get a lot of static. But we've always been about freedom," says Lewis. "Whatever you want, you've got the freedom to play it in the Dirty Dozen. Whatever, it don't matter. It's all music."

It's a sentiment echoed by founding trumpeter/bandleader Gregory Davis in a 1996 interview with Offbeat. Purists said, " 'Oh, man, you're not playing traditional brass band music,' because we would play some Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, James Brown….[They] would put us down because we didn't play 'When the Saints…' 40 times a night….What inspired us to keep going was the people who hired us, who wanted to hear the new music we were playing. And the new music was a mixture of 'Bourbon Street Parade' and Charlie Parker's 'Bongo Beat.' "

The Dirty Dozen has never numbered 12 and did not choose its name. That came instead from one of the many "Social and Pleasure Clubs" that dot the landscape in The City That Care Forgot. The initial spark came from none other than Danny Barker, the legendary guitarist/ banjo player who had just moved back home to the Ninth Ward after a life on the road with the likes of Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton. Frustrated by his inability to find a decent trumpet player, Barker launched the Fairview Baptist Church Band to provide a training ground for young musicians. This quickly secularized into first the Hurricane and then the Tornado Brass Band. By now, Gregory Davis was aboard.

Meanwhile, in the Garden District on the other side of town, Lewis had just come off a decade on the road backing Fats Domino. He was looking to expand his frontiers beyond the Fat Man's signature sound. One by one he assembled the rest of the band that shook the New Orleans establishment. After various false starts and name changes (the Rinky Dinks, the Pet-Milk 6), Davis and Lewis merged bands, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was born in April 1977. "It was me and Charles Joseph first. We needed a tuba guy, so we got Charles's little brother Kirk right out of school. I called Gregory for trumpet. He had been an insurance man. Then we needed another trumpet, a high-note cat. That's when we found Efrem Towns. Don't know where we found him, but we got him. Then we found Kevin Harris. Then we started practicing."

Fast-forward a quarter-century: The brass band scene that the Dirty Dozen once found in intensive care has now checked itself out of the hospital altogether. The Rebirth Brass Band, to name but one that has followed in the Dirty Dozen's wake, has been booked to back up artists as diverse as N'Dea Davenport and Robbie Robertson. Much as "Blackbird Special" did for the Dirty Dozen, the Rebirth's "Do Whatcha Wanna" earned the young band a place in the crowded pantheon of Crescent City legends. Rebirth grads Kermit Ruffins and Roderick Paulin have launched promising solo careers. Nightclubs from Chalmette to Metairie, Algiers to Lake Pontchartrain, pack with dancers ready to sweat out a good time to the Rebirth's modern variations of the sounds that made the city famous.

But to Lewis, as fresh as the Rebirth may sound, there is nothing new in the band's approach. It's simply an update on the Dirty Dozen's melding of time-honored Big Easy ritual with the sounds of blackness from further afield. Lewis is aware that bands like the Rebirth are doing essentially the same thing that he and his bandmates once did. But oddly enough, he soon comes across conservative and a bit curmudgeonly. "The Rebirth has no clue about the history of the music," he grouses. "They are too one-dimensional. We do more than that."

The point is well taken. While the Rebirth revs hard, it's almost always in one gear: pedal to the metal. The Rebirth is about a good time, all the time. The Dirty Dozen, by contrast, is a far more sophisticated engine. A band that takes on Ellington, Monk and entire albums of Jelly Roll Morton material clearly has more on its mind than just big fun on the bayou -- tunes like its crowd-pleasing take on "Meet the Flintstones" notwithstanding.

While bands like the Rebirth have much to do with keeping the flame burning as the music enters its third century, it shouldn't be forgotten that they are in fact performing in the same mold that the Dirty Dozen once shattered and recast. The Rebirth are mere evangelists of a faith that the Dirty Dozen delivered from on high.

To find who carved out the Old Testament of New Orleans brass band music, one has to go back beyond the reach of sound recording. Some claim Buddy Bolden wrote the book. Others have alternate patriarchs. But it is a demonstrable fact that the Dirty Dozen authored the genre's New Testament.

They plan to go on, though Lewis is not sure for how much longer. "It's steady change. We're dropping like flies now," he laughs. "I got a two-year-old daughter. The road is unforgiving. But we'll keep it going, God spare life."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax